Thursday, September 23, 2010

"The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift" (2006)

Starring Lucas Black, Bow Wow and Sung Kang
Written by Chris Morgan
Directed by Justin Lin

The third movie in the "Fast and the Furious" franchise functions like a bizarre step-child of the series, in retrospect.  At the time, it seems unlikely that the producers would see things this way, but four years later with one more sequel and another in development, "Tokyo Drift" stands out as almost totally unlike the others in the series.

Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is a restless teen who can only get his kicks doing dangerous races.  After getting into a fight with a jock at school over a girl, Sean races him, but the challenge ends with both men's cars wrecked.  They get arrested, but the quarterback's family is rich and connected and he gets off with a slap on the wrist.  Sean, on the other hand, is sent to live with his father in Tokyo, Japan.

There, he finds not only a culture alien to him, but a new kind of racing as well: drifting.  In Japan, he finds that racing isn't about speed, it's about agility.  Cars "drift" around sharp corners and close calls, seemingly defying physics.  Confidently, he thinks he can handle it, taking on a race against Takashi, Tokyo's "Drift King" (Brian Tee).  But having no car of his own to drive, he borrows one from Takashi's partner, Han (Sung Kang) and promptly smashes it to shit and loses the race.

Sean also catches the eye of Takashi's girlfriend, Neela (Nathalie Kelley).  This sets off all kinds of problems and confrontations between the two.  It also doesn't help that Takashi's uncle Kamata (Sonny Chiba) is Yakuza, and that he suspects that Han has been stealing from them.  When Takashi goes after Han for that betrayal, Han ends up dead.  Sean challenges him to a final race, winner take all (including Neela).

The plot of "Tokyo Drift" is about as weak as it gets.  It kind of wanders about for a long time before finally deciding it's time for some kind of climax.  The characters are just as dull, and it certainly doesn't help that the cast isn't really up to even this task, either.  Lucas Black lacks both the goofy humor of Paul Walker and the presence or charisma of Vin Diesel.  He can't even match the comic timing of Tyrese Gibson.  He spends most of the movie just kind of there, staring blankly forward, occasionally throwing out a determined glance of half a smile.  His southern accent doesn't do him any favors, either, since he can't manage to use any of his dialogue to come across as charming or intelligent.  None of the other actors in the film have any real presence, either.  Even Sonny Chiba seems like he doesn't even really care about what he's doing, and he's only in three scenes.

Where "Tokyo Drift" succeeds, however, is in its incredibly fun car chase sequences.  Director Justin Lin seems almost totally uninterested in the plot or characters of his movie, but when it comes time for cars to start driving sideways, the film comes to life.  The bright colors of Tokyo reflect sharply off all the shiny cars squeeling this way and that, weaving in and out of heavy traffic and crowds of pedestrians.  Lin shoots some of the drifting sequences with a reverence or awe that shows exactly where his interest in making this film lies.

Each race sequence is bigger and better than the last.  The final chase down the side of the mountain is a fine enough climax, though for my money, the real showstopper is a multi-car chase through heavy traffic in Tokyo proper as Takashi and his gang chase down Han and Sean.  This sequence is car chase gold, with lots of crashing, smashing and close-calls at high speeds.

Fun fact: Though there are four "Fast and the Furious" movies (and a fifth in production now), "Tokyo Drift" is the last one, chronologically.  It all has to do with the character of Han, who dies here.  A cameo appearance by Vin Diesel as Dom informs us that Dom and Han are friends... and in the fourth film, "Fast and Furious," we find Han running with Dom's road heist gang.  Han is also slated to appear in the fifth film, "Fast Five."

Anyway, "Tokyo Drift" is full of dull characters and forgettable dialogue.  It only comes alive once those characters get behind the wheels of their sweet rides and go for a spin.  If you can watch "Tokyo Drift" just fastforwarding through any scene that doesn't feature driving, you should have a good time.